Maggs Bros. Ltd is one of the oldest continuously operating dealers in rare books and manuscripts in the English speaking world. It also has the distinction of holding a Royal Warrant as purveyor of books to the Queen of England and her family. Established in 1853 by Uriah Maggs, it is presently headed by Ed Maggs, 57, who graciously consented to an interview about himself, his firm and staff in the current scheme of things.
The Q&A was conducted via email between Hawaii and the UK at the end of April 2015
The philosophy of Maggs is summed up nicely by this quote on “Building a Library” from the company’s web site:
“Above all, buy with your heart. Buy what you understand, what you love, what moves you, not what established taste dictates. This is not to decry connoisseurship, scholarship, and the wisdom of the wise, but equally do not be uncritical.”
Q Your company has an illustrious history. What parts of it are your favorites?
A. What has posterity ever done for us, that's what I want to know? A distinguished history is a wonderful thing, but it can be a knife with no handle, especially if you are seduced by it into thinking that you have some sort of special right to success: the vanity of the old established firm, and consequent smugness is a terrifying vision to me. When people describe Maggs as an "institution" I remind them what sort of people live in institutions ...
But the past has a way of living in the present, and good things continue to return to you. When I was embarking on dealing, one of my first really exciting and valuable transactions was selling Edith Wharton's Hyères library, as a result of an introduction from Jake Zeitlin, the Los Angeles dealer, as a formal thank you for my grandfather having lent him stock in the 1930s when he was embarking on his career.
The historical transaction that we still get asked about most is the sale of the Codex Sinaiticus in 1933. Although it seems wrong to invest the story of such a pre-eminent artefact with dealer-talk, it remains (with the Robinson's purchase of the Phillips manuscripts) the most complete bookselling fantasy. In 1931 Ernest Maggs and Maurice Ettinghausen were negotiating with the Soviet Government to buy a Gutenberg Bible (now the Bodmer copy) and almost casually observed that the Codex - one of the most important biblical manuscripts in the world - would be worth even more. A long and difficult negotiation led to the purchase of the Codex by the British Museum Library, in a storm of publicity with money donated to a public appeal by cooks and Counts, boy-scouts and country vicars.
Q I gather from reading the clips that being a book seller was not your first choice of occupation. How did you come to join the firm, how did you learn to be one of the leading dealers in the world and do you regret that you did not become a reggae disk jockey you once hoped to be? Who were the people who you learned from, admired, influenced you?
A. Well, as you say I made a rather doomed attempt to modify my genes. My time on the fringes of the musical world came to an end when I tried to sack the band's singer while not taking into account that we were still sharing a flat: I've never been blessed with good judgment, but this was the only time it's led to death threats.
DJing was always the fallback position (it's not the hardest thing in the world): I no longer regret not being the bass guitarist of my generation, but I would give anything to stand below the window of my beloved's apartment and sing, unaccompanied, the aria "Vedi l'ape ch'ingegnosa" from Handel's Berenice. One changes.
At a loose end, I started doing casual jobs in the firm, and got drawn in. I was lucky enough to be apprenticed to Bill Lent, a legendarily curmudgeonly old bookseller, and ended up taking over the modern department from him. My father John Maggs dealt with travel books, and it would be a regret that I didn't go into that field were it not for the fact that Hugh Bett has done it so tremendously well for the last twenty five years.
Dad and I got on very well at the firm, but wouldn't necessarily have done so had we been working in the same speciality. As to learning the trade, I'm very much looking forward to it! Early on I was lucky enough to be pointed at the writings of Michael Sadleir, Colin Franklin and John Carter and they still remain my “what’s it all about” sources.
There was a certain amount of taking under the arm from old-timers such as Douglas Cleverdon and Jake Zeitlin; the extraordinarily knowledgeable John Collins worked at Maggs for many years and taught me a lot; Bill Reese and Terry Halladay have been friends for many years, and I still frequently turn to them for advice; outside the trade, I try not to abuse my friendships (in other words, I research their published writings before phoning them - nothing annoys an expert more) with the T.E. Lawrence expert Jeremy Wilson, and the great Yeatsians Warwick Gould and Deirdre Toomey.
Arnold Hunt is another whose encyclopaedic knowledge of both book and book-trade history I often lean on, as is that of Michael Meredith and his erstwhile Eton colleague Paul Quarrie. Colleagues who I remain in awe of for the depths of their knowledge include Robert Harding and the brilliant if irascible (Ha! that'll get his steam up) Glenn Mitchell, who used to work at Maggs - it is in fact invidious to mention any of my current colleagues, for they are all amazingly knowledgeable both inside and outside their fields.
Q. Is there a next generation of Maggs family coming up from the ranks? Children, relatives, family of workers? Who looks promising?
A. The firm has a really talented group of youngsters involved now - I think six people aged 30 and under. It's very exciting to see the enthusiasm that the "born-digital" generation has for real stuff - the fact that the book is a less quotidian part of their life gives them a very sharp appreciation of the unique qualities of original historical material. The appetite for the analogue among youngsters is very real. It's not a binary choice between digital and actual: you need both.
The stories of how we came to hire two of them are interesting, because they show how important basic enthusiasm is:
Chris Stork - the most senior of the young group and an associate director of the firm already - came from the CV pile: we get a lot of applications out of the blue, all of whom declare a passionate interest in rare books (sometimes even a passionate interest in the "Rare Book Industry") but who show no evidence of it in their CVs. Chris, on the other hand had done a Masters with a dissertation on a to-me obscure 17th Century English book collector - I remember thinking, "Oh, hang on, this one means it!"
Alice Rowell came through an introduction at a time when I had an interesting but particularly challenging archive to be dealt with. She told me of her dissertation at the Courtauld on the interesting Victorian painter and illustrator Joseph Noel Paton, a subject she chose because it would mean working in Scotland, away from her supervisor who was forever at her to turn up the semiotics knob. She explained that she just wanted to tell the actual stories from actual material, and not be obliged to try and bend history into contemporary theory: it was a very short interview - if she had been coached on how to appeal to my prejudices she couldn't have done better.
My son Ben, now in his mid to late twenties, is one of that small pack, and is beginning to specialise in private presses, book illustration and hopefully modern fine bindings - what you might call the book as artefact. He's also doing an MA in the History of the Book at the University of London's Institute of English Studies. It's an excellent course - he's doing his dissertation on the fascinating comparison between the Private Press movement as a reaction to the coarseness of the products of the Industrial Revolution, and the contemporary art book and ‘zine culture as a reaction against the transience of today's digital culture.
I'd always thought he'd be a good bookseller - he's got a wide range of interests and a basic belief in the importance of artefact over idea, or artefact as evidence of idea. His first subject at university was archeology, and he speaks with relief of the pleasure of dealing with material where there is more knowledge than conjecture.
Q. Is there a future for bookselling in the digital age? Have your ideas about bookselling changed since the advent of the Internet?
A. What's to be said about bookselling in the age of electricity that hasn't already been said? I think we all understand the mechanism whereby the best and the rest have become more polarised, as part of the disruption both of the product and of the market. Bookselling has become harder over recent years, but in some ways better.
Books don't automatically sell themselves in the way they used to, and everything is hand-sold. Equally, collectors tend not to buy everything on a subject any more, and only want things with particular meaning, and there's nothing not to like about that: it's a long time since I've seen a wants list which principally cites numbers in a bibliography.
I've always said that the netweb as a selling tool would only be an extra arm, to be added to the traditional premises/catalogue/fair model, and I think it's being proved that the integration of the internet into our whole lives means that it's actually hard to identify a particular transaction as an "internet sale" or a "shop sale". They all support each other. It's annoying how expensive digital marketing is - at one stage it was mooted to be a cheap place to do business, but not so much now.
Q. What does it take financially to keep the doors open at a company like Maggs, millions, tens of millions, more?
A. Ah, you're verging on the nosy there. Quite a lot, and it's dispiriting sometimes to realise how many books you have to sell a month before you show a profit. It's tempting to do a big shrink, move away from prime real estate and beat up on the overhead in other ways. We might make more in the short term, but we would be diminishing our goodwill, eating our seed corn, living on capital. I'm very proud that of our 20 odd staff, only three and a half aren't directly involved in bookselling - we have a good and slim management/administration structure.
Q. Is the story about Napoleon’s penis true? Did Maggs really sell it?
A. Ah, the Emperor's Willy! Yes, it's true I'm afraid. It was part of a big Napoleonic collection we handled between the wars. The "tendon" was malign and had been amputated pre-mortem and had been kept by his doctor, as a rather grisly souvenir.
Q. What is your own taste now? What are your favorite parts of the business? Least favorite parts?
A. As Tigger might have said, "Archives is what I like best." The chance of finding and telling stories that no one else has - of seeing things for the first time - is very seductive. I feel like Howard Carter sometimes, seeing wonderful things for the first time.
Cataloguing them is profoundly satisfying, if time consuming. Ours is a fairly social trade, and I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by amiable and brilliant customers and colleagues - both within and outwith the firm.
Admin, accounts and I.T. nightmares is what I least like, though they all have their attractions, especially when things go well. I don't like having to tell people off, and am famously bad at it.
Q. It’s pretty impressive to be the bookseller to the Queen. How does that happen? Could you explain what a royal warrant is?
A. The Royal Warrants - they exist for the Queen and the Prince of Wales - are granted to firms who work for the Royal Households. Windsor has of course a tremendous library and archive, and we're rather proud that the current librarian Oliver Urquhart-Irvine is an ex-Maggs employee. It saves a lot of money on having to hire graphics designers to make a logo - the crest looks quite smart on one's letterhead!
Q. What are some of the high points of the last few years? Any regrets? Collections that got away? Sales that went sour, economies that tanked? How did you survive the recession?
A. It's very boring, but we really don't brag about what we've done. The difference between the bookseller and the auctioneer is that whereas they rely on trumpeting, we rely on discretion. Speaking generally, we help build libraries, help disperse them, place important individual items, advise, and of course trade on our own behalf, buying and selling in the market. The years following the ‘Crisis’ were pretty good for us. Last year was tough - don't really know why: the cycles of the rare book trade are baffling. This year is already much more encouraging.
Q. Who of the younger generation (any nationality) do you think has a future, has impressed you? Dealer, institution, collector, philanthropist? What trends or new areas of interest do you see shaping up?
A. In the younger generation, all the youngsters who work for Maggs! But seriously, there appear to be many motivated and brilliant youngsters in the trade and the curatorial world at the moment.
Q. Many of the people who read our site are on the "sell" side, i.e. dealers themselves or interested in becoming dealers. Do you have any words of advice?
A. I'm the wrong person to advise on anyone starting dealing. I had such an extraordinary leg up from nepotism, that beyond advising people to choose their parents well I'm at a loss. Besides, there are so many different approaches that succeed there isn't one answer.
It might be worth considering which end of the dealer spectrum you will be closer to - the product-led, or the client-led (apologies for the ugly phraseology). The former is typified by the connoisseurial dealer, who knows what he or she believes is important and promotes that, and the latter is the marketer who finds clients, listens to them, and sells what they already want to buy.
This is similar, but not the same as the dichotomy between the scholarly bookseller and the merchant dealer. The choice is not black and white of course, and everyone needs to find their place on the balance beam. You've got to like people as well as books.
Q. I too come from a bookselling family. When I was a child my father had a long run of Maggs catalogs from the turn of the century to about the late 1920s. He kept them in the bathroom next to the toilet, and I learned to read from them. I also learned quite a bit about cataloging from them too. I have always loved the Maggs catalogs, how do you maintain the consistently high quality of writing? Informative, persuasive and seldom boring. Do your catalogers go to school? How do they get to be so good?
A. Good cataloguing? Caring, that's all. If people don't care about the books, they can't write well about them. I think that the formal and semi-formal education in bookselling that some of the youngsters are getting today is valuable, and they will learn more quickly than us. We were chucked in the deep end. And you've got to realise that the catalogue note is the permanent record of the dealer's engagement with the book - to us books are like favourite grandchildren who we can spoil, love up, and then pass them on to more permanent custodians. It's our way of leaving a mark.
Q. In 2010 there was an interesting story about you in the Guardian, are the facts in that story still true today? Here's the link: www.theguardian.com/money/2010/oct/09/rare-book-dealer
A. Pretty much true. A big development has been in my private life - we took advantage of the recession by upping the quality of our yott, outrageously. See her at bettyalan.com. Our goal is a millionaire's lifestyle on a school teacher's income, and we're just about managing it, though finding the time to use her properly is turning out to be a challenge.
Q. It is my impression that a lot of people find Maggs a more than little intimidating. How do you deal with that?
A. Yes, there’s an awful sense that Maggs isn’t for everyone – that’s one of the things I was trying to get at when I ranted about not being an institution. Surprisingly we’re not as pompous as people think we are, but I grant that we do have this sort of impregnable feeling. I’ve worked there for 35 years, and my name’s over the door, yet I still get nervous coming in through the front door. Give us a try - when you crack our facade we can be quite amiable.
Link to web site: www.maggs.com
Among the many interesting items on view at the Maggs site is a link to a video about the Maggs Opium Collection posted in connection with an exhibit in Oct. 2013